The Fault Lines in Vietnam’s Next Political Struggle

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The Fault Lines in Vietnam’s Next Political Struggle

Infighting ahead of the next mid-term Congress is already visible.

The Fault Lines in Vietnam’s Next Political Struggle
Credit: U.S. State Department Photo

From 24-30 October 2016, Dinh The Huynh, a senior member of the Vietnamese Communist Party’s Secretariat and Politburo paid a low-key visit to the United States. Even though it garnered almost no media attention in the United States, and was largely platitudes and symbolism, it has important implications for Vietnamese domestic politics.

In January 2016, the VCP held its 12th Congress, which elected a new Central Committee and Politburo, but unexpectedly, kept the incumbent General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong in his post. Even though he was elected to a full five-year term, rumors were that the 73-year old general secretary was only to serve a half a term at most.

January’s Party Congress was supposed to have settled serious political schisms. But less than a year later, there is already evidence of intra-party fighting and jockeying for positions, suggesting that Trong will be stepping down sooner, rather than later. Vietnamese politics, as opaque as they are, are fluid.

Dinh The Huynh is a career communist party ideologue. He studied journalism in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, and worked his way up the party-controlled media, culminating as the vice-editor of the party’s flagship daily newspaper Nhan Dan. He became the party’s top ideologue and propagandist at the 11th Party Congress in 2011. In that position, he had significant influence over ideology, education, and oversight of the media.

In the run up to the 12th Congress, Huynh lobbied to become the General Secretary. He was the choice of conservatives within the party, who feared Vietnam’s increasing globalization and membership into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). More importantly, they argued that the Party has been increasingly sidelined from decision-making by government technocrats. Although he did not get elected, his patron Trong was given a second age waiver and remained General Secretary. Though Huynh is no longer the head of the Central Committee’s Education and Propaganda Commission, he’s in a newly created position above it, Chairman of the Central Theoretical Council, making him, at least symbolically, still the party’s top ideologue.

Days prior to his trip to Washington, Huynh traveled to China, where he met with senior Chinese leadership, including Xi Jinping. After the HYSY-981 incident in 2014, China has worked assiduously to cultivate party-to-party ties with Vietnam, a counterweight to the more fraught bilateral state and military relationships.  Huynh, who has never held a state position and is known as an ideological conservative, is a natural interlocutor with Beijing, where the emphasis remains on historical and fraternal ties.

His trip to America took some by surprise. He has rarely travelled outside the communist bloc or immediate neighborhood, but in the United States, he met with senior government officials including Secretary of State John Kerry, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, amongst others. Interestingly, the United States bestowed on him certain titles, including “His Excellency” and the “Executive Secretary”. He is not the head of state, and holds only a party position, currently ranked eighth on the Politburo. The position “Executive Secretary” technically doesn’t even exist, or at best, is a diplomatic spin on his current position.

The trip was meant to broaden his exposure to the outside world and to introduce him to foreign leaders. The trip was the strongest hint to date that he will succeed Trong as the VCP’s General Secretary at the mid-term congress.

Not all are on board with Huynh’s apparent ascension. Tran Dai Quang, the current president, is a leading candidate to become General Secretary at the 13th Congress in 2021. Although there was significant support for him to become the party chief at the 12th Congress, last January, he was seen as too young and needing a broader portfolio. Quang would be 65 in 2021, not requiring an age waiver (though there have been allegations swirling online that he lied about his age in order to remain eligible), but with much more experience in both national security and economics.

Quang’s inability to stop Huynh from becoming General Secretary is somewhat surprising. For the past ten years he was Deputy Minister, then Minister of Public Security. Quang knows everything about everybody, and over the course of ten years has seeded the government with his supporters. He has begun to put his imprimatur on the public security and military modernization and is known to be highly competent, a pragmatist rather than an ideologue. He has also chafed at the role of the presidency, largely a ceremonial position.

In many ways, Huynh’s appointment may be simply to reward a VCP stalwart, with a few years at the top.  Unless Huynh receives an age waiver, he will be ineligible to serve in the 13th Congress, in 2021.  Quang, may simply be bowing to the inevitable, biding his time, building up his own patronage network, confident that he can keep Huynh boxed in over the next two to three years.  It may not be worth expending the political capital or engendering political enemies in the near term to oppose what he expects to be Huynh’s temporary ascension.

But Huynh’s appointment will not be positive for Vietnam’s political and economic development. He could do a lot of damage in two to three years, especially with Vietnam’s patronage-based political system.  Though he rarely speaks about the economy in specifics, Huynh is ideologically predisposed against the necessary economic reforms that Vietnam needs to take to avoid being caught in the middle-income trap. He has spoken out against the privatization of some 2,500 state owned enterprises, whose debt burden is soaring, causing concern at the IMF.

Most importantly, he has resisted polices that no longer disadvantage the vibrant private sector, which, as Anton Tsvetov has noted in these pages, are having a transformative effect on economics and society.  In particular, Vietnam’s high-tech sector and software coding industries have been standouts.  But they are very mobile, and at the end of the day they are at odds with the Vietnam having the most restricted internet in Southeast Asia.

Already Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc has said that, owing to the election of Donald Trump in the United States, TPP ratification has been shelved, Vietnam is still vowing to implement the agreement. While Huynh is unlikely to be a forceful advocate for the TPP, despite the positive impact that it would have on Vietnam’s economy, the government itself seems very committed to continuing the reforms required for accession.

At a time when economic growth will slow due to externalities, including the failure of the TPP, Vietnam needs even bolder reform, not less. “We will continue carrying out what we’ve planned to do,” said Nguyen Duc Kien, deputy head of the Vietnam National Assembly’s economic committee. In October 2016, the VCP Politburo and Central Committee endorsed a resolution further opening the economy. At the same time, the Ministry of Finance has endorsed lowering the tax rate on startups from 20 to 15 percent.

Yet economic liberalization has been met with a renewed political crackdown, something that usually precedes political transitions. Vietnam remains among the top ten jailers of journalists, with eight currently in prison.

But this year has been different, with a large chemical spill in April that led to a massive fish kill in the center of the country.  Although the government fined Formosa Plastics, one of the largest foreign investors in the country, $500 million, the government’s response has not appeased the public.  In September there were unprecedented nation-wide protests. The government has not been able to crackdown on the mass protests, fearful of a popular backlash, but at the same time, is fearful that current environmental protests will take on a broader anti-state agenda.

As such, the government has been targeting the nodes of the demonstration: the bloggers and online leaders of the environmental movement.  Popular blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh (Anh Ba Sam) and his assistant, arrested in October 2014, were sentenced to five years in March 2016, while Nguyen Quang A has been detained and harassed, and was prevented from meeting President Obama in May. Most recently, the government arrested Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (aka Me Nam or Mother Mushroom), for her leadership in fomenting environmental demonstrations.

Under Huynh’s leadership, we should expect much less tolerance of dissent, and a greater crackdown on social media. Human rights activists are warning that the new and controversial Law on Belief and Religion is nothing more than a way to further curtail Vietnam’s nascent civil society.

The fish kill has had a real impact on the VCP.  In late September, more than 500 Christian plaintiffs lodged individual law suits against Formosa. This has clearly placed the government and party in a bind, as they control the judiciary, and dismissing a suit, or ruling against the plaintiffs would have enormous political consequences for the regime. At the same time, a ruling against Formosa could have negative repercussions for foreign investment and the economy. The government ultimately dismissed the lawsuits, citing “lack of proofs of real damage”.

But where you really see the political infighting is in the unprecedented and high-profile counter corruption investigations that are currently ongoing. While countering corruption is a net good, in a country that scores as poorly as Vietnam, the problem is that when the media is controlled by the state the high profile investigations have less to do with tackling endemic corruption and more to do with taking down political rivals and their protégés.  There are at least three recent examples.

Vu Huy Hoang the former Minister of Industry and Trade, ironically the man who signed the TPP agreement, was recently investigated for appointing his son to a leadership position in a major SOE. In addition to charges of nepotism, he was investigated for hiring a senior PetroVietnam official (discussed below) after the latter, himself, was being investigated for corruption. The Party dismissed him from all party posts in November and is mulling about expelling him from the party, while the National Assembly is investigating him, opening the way for further criminal action.

Trinh Xuan Thanh, who chaired the PetroVietnam Construction Company, a key contractor for and subsidiary of the state owned energy firm, was investigated for accruing VND3.3 trillion ($147 million) in losses. He is currently on the run overseas, and Vietnam has issued an Interpol Red Notice for his arrest. This case is particularly notable, as Trong was very outspoken over this relatively minor official, presiding the meeting that expelled him from the Party and continuously calling for his eventual arrest. His ability to travel abroad while being investigated has raised other questions, and some have surmised that he could not escape Vietnam without the tacit allowance by the Immigration Bureau, under control of the Ministry of Public Security.

A colleague of Thanh’s, Vu Duc Thuan, was arrested, as part of the same investigation into mismanagement at PetroVietnam Construction.

The common thread in these three investigations is Dinh La Thang, currently the Ho Chi Minh City Party Secretary, former Minister of Transportation, and Chairman of PetroVietnam Corporation. The careers of these three men, especially that of Vu Duc Thuan, have closely followed Thang’s through his stints at SOEs, government and party postings.

Born in 1960, Thang is one of the youngest members of the 12th Politburo and has been advanced by VCP reformers as a future leader.  Conservatives have had him in their sights.

Targeting his protégés has put Thang on the defensive and he has moved to distance himself from them. In October, he said that Trinh Xuan Thanh would be seriously pursued and punished, but conservatives sense his vulnerability and have continued their assault against his other protégés. At the time of the 12th Party Congress, it was rumored that Tran Dai Quang fought for Thang’s promotion to the Politburo.  So the attacks against Thang and his protégés are seen as indirect assaults on Tran Dai Quang, weakening his position in both the Politburo and Central Committee.

The 12th Party Congress was meant to have put to rest the major factional disputes within the VCP, at least for a few years.  Yet the infighting ahead of the mid-term Congress is in full bore. Vietnam’s opaque politics hides the intense infighting that is currently ongoing.  While it looks clear that communist ideologue Dinh The Huynh is likely to become the party’s General Secretary at the mid-term congress, the real politicking for the 13th Congress in 2021 is clearly already underway.

Zachary Abuza is a Professor at the National War College in Washington, DC, where he specializes in Southeast Asian security and politics. The views expressed here are those of the author and are not an official policy or position of the National War College, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.